On September 5, 1791, Jacob Liebmann Beer – better known as the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer – was born, near Berlin, in Prussia. Meyerbeer grew up in a home that was deeply Jewish: His father was a leader of the local Jewish community, and had a private synagogue in their house, and the son is notable for never having abandoned or tried to hide his Jewish identity.
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Meyerbeer was an extremely well-known and admired operatic composer in his day, with works like “Il Crociatto in Egitto,” “Robert le Diable” and “Les Huguenots” being performed in the great opera houses of Europe. If Meyerbeer is not a household name today, it is in part attributable to his music being dated, but no less to the concerted effort that Richard Wagner went to blacken his reputation.
Meyerbeer had been both a teacher and financial supporter of the young Wagner, so the fact that the latter turned on his mentor later in life is especially cruel. In 1850, Wagner published, under a pseudonym, an essay on “Jewishness in Music,” in which he denigrated the success of Meyerbeer without mentioning him by name.
Wagner’s continuing efforts to lower the critical estimation of Meyerbeer paid off, while his own reputation rose: Whereas in 1890, the year before “Lohengrin” had its premiere at the Paris Opera, there were no works by Wagner staged at that house, and 32 performances of four grand operas by Meyerbeer, a decade later, there were 60 performances of Wagner operas at the Paris Opera, and only three of Meyerbeer.
Meyerbeer died in 1864. In recent decades, there has been a renewed interest in his work, and stagings of his operas are becoming more frequent. Next year, the Royal Opera House in London plans to offer its first production of “Robert le Diable” in 120 years.